When David Fincher transitioned from music videos to feature films in the 1990s, the descriptors “glossy,” “slick” and “stylized” were frequently affixed to his work. Those adjectives were often aimed as pejoratives, categorizing Fincher as a technical virtuoso who created shiny but hollow thrillers.
Watching the second season of Netflix’s Mindhunter—executive produced and partially directed by Fincher—the evolution of the filmmaker’s aesthetic is striking. As FBI profilers Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) and Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) interview America’s most notorious serial killers, the camera rarely moves. Instead, it unobtrusively observes.
What hasn’t changed over the years is Fincher’s unwavering exactitude, exemplified by the show’s almost mathematically meticulous compositions. Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt is the guardian of that precision, carrying season two’s restrained yet formal style across episodes directed by Fincher, Andrew Dominik (Killing Them Softly) and Carl Franklin (One False Move).
With season two now streaming on Netflix, Messerschmidt spoke with Filmmaker about the necessity of HDR monitoring, creating faux-anamorphic effects, and his hockey puck-sized secret weapon for eye lights.
Filmmaker: It’s been two years since season one of Mindhunter, which you shot on custom Weapon Red Dragons (nicknamed Xenomorphs). I guess it shows how quickly camera technology is changing, because since that time Red has gone to a universal DSMC2 brain and the Dragon sensor is only in their lowest-cost camera. Now the Monstro 8K VV and the Helium 8K S35 are Red’s top-of-the-line offerings. Did you change cameras for season two?
Messerschmidt: For season two we switched to Red’s Helium sensor, shooting in 8K 2:1 with 8:1 compression. Out of the 8K raster we framed for a 6.5K extraction area, which left room for stabilization in post. We did extensive lighting, color and workflow tests prior to the decision to switch camera sensors and ended up loving the results of the Helium. We found the noise floor to be substantially lower, the color fidelity to be better and the sensitivity to be higher than the Dragon.
Filmmaker: Did you have any additional custom Xenomorph tweaks for the new cameras?
Messerschmidt: For season two Red built us a new model of the Xenomorph dubbed the Mark II. The new body included the DSMC2 brain with the Helium sensor. It was upgraded with redesigned cooling, integrated lens motors and the new Teradek Bolt video transmitters.
Jason Hill is the hypnotic composer, producer, recording artist, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist, admired for his arcane musical stylings and idiosyncratic approach. He is the frontman and thought leader of controversial post-punk band, Louis XIV, member of alternative supergroup, Vicky Cryer, and founder of The Department of Recording and Power, a voluminous vintage studio in Glendale, California. A contrarian musical nomad, Jason has thrived in myriad roles within the music business, working with David Bowie, The Killers, Robbie Williams, New York Dolls, Jet, Sky Ferreira, Macy Gray, The Virgins, Richard Butler of The Psychedelic Furs, and many others. After being tapped to fulfill the official trailer and teaser for Gone Girl, legendary director, David Fincher invited Jason to conjure a musical macrocosm for Netflix’s gripping criminal psychology thriller series, Mindhunter. Over two critically acclaimed seasons, Jason’s score negotiates the liminal space between masks of normalcy and unbridled savagery, masterfully evoking unseen traumas. In our sprawling discussion, Jason details his lifelong rejection of sonic mores and how he made Netflix history with his haunting re-imagining of the Mindhunter theme for the season two finale.
Before becoming a composer for media, you explored many artistic avenues in the music industry — Louis XIV, Vicky Cryer, and beyond. Could you describe some of your most fulfilling pursuits before you changed your professional trajectory? What are the advantages of having a strong pre-existing relationship to storytelling through music?
Well, it’s an interesting thought about the storytelling aspect. With songwriting, you’re trying to tell these mini stories, but I’ve had many, many fulfilling artistic projects. Louis XIV, I absolutely loved doing, and in fact, for the first time in 10 years, we’re in the middle of making another record. We’ve got a few songs so far, and it’s fun to come back around to it after we went pretty hard, toured the world, and made records. “The Best Little Secrets are Kept” is one of the records I’m very, very proud of. I just loved making it.
Looking back, I lived in this little, tiny…it wasn’t even an apartment, and it overlooked a Shell gas station. It didn’t have a shower or anything. I would literally connect a hose to the faucet and drag it out on the balcony that overlooked the gas station. In the middle of the night, I would hose myself to take a shower unless I was staying at girlfriends’ houses. I had a futon in the corner, but the rest of the place was just my recording gear. I was broke, but I was happy to be making music. That’s where all the Louis XIV material came about. It was essentially from those late nights, and that was a really great experience.
I’ve actually had so many great experiences related to music. There were times when me and my past bandmates moved to a place called Jamul up in the mountains, about an hour outside of downtown San Diego. We lived in this old adobe house on forty-six acres that an artist built. That was one of the places where we learned to sing harmonies and write together. That was also where I really learned how to record. We just had reel-to-reels, and I figured out how to do it. I’ve always lived in pursuit of trying to figure out how to do things by myself. If I signed a record deal, instead of giving another producer a bunch of money in the studio to make a record, it was like, “No. Let’s just buy a bunch of gear ourselves, and now, we can make records for the rest of our lives.” That’s why I have the arsenal of stuff I have to this day.
There are so many incarnations of my life in music, starting from the moment I first fell in love with it. I remember as a little kid; I was actually plagued by these things in my head, which later I learned were melodies. It would drive me nuts. To be honest with you, as a nine-year-old kid, I would have all these tiny, weird symphonies playing in my mind, but I didn’t know what they were until I started figuring out what music really was. Of course, I knew what music “was,” and I even wrote a song around age five, but at that point, I didn’t know how to make these melodies I was hearing come to life. It was like, “How do I get this out of my head and into the cosmos? How do I play it on a guitar or a piano?”. Oh god, it was so tough. That was a thing like, “I gotta figure this out because otherwise, it’s going to kill me.”
I think it’s always been a pursuit of the fog. It’s like a foggy mirror after a hot shower. Little by little, the fog comes clear, and you are able to see your reflection. That’s what music has been, for me, for my entire life, and now, I just have a lot more control over it. That said, it’s still this elusive thing, and I love that elusive thing. I love the feeling of not knowing, so I still dance in that realm.
The Glass Armonica, invented by Benjamin Franklin.
Taking place in the late ’70s through the early ’80s, Mindhunter charts the origin of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit and the practice of criminal profiling. Together, agents, Holden Ford and Bill Tench, alongside psychologist, Wendy Carr interview and analyze incarcerated serial killers across the nation, applying this groundbreaking knowledge to solve cases. In your collaboration with David Fincher, what concepts and musical references does he bring to the table, and how does that inform your approach?
[David Fincher] is so articulate. He’s a brilliant man. I can’t stress that enough, really. He gives you these prompts, but they’re rarely specific. Nowhere in there is he saying, “Do this,” or “Make this piece exactly like this.” He just gives you these open-ended questions.
This time around, one of his prompts was ‘the death of disco’ and what that sounded like. It was a very interesting thing to consider when you think of our score and where it ended up. How does finding out what the death of disco sounds like translate to season two of Mindhunter? I still don’t know, but it led me in a place of trying to figure it out, which was a bit of a mind fuck.
This week on Pop Culture Confidential we are thrilled to have screenwriter Liz Hannah in conversation about the incredible new season of Mindhunter, as well as working with Steven Spielberg on The Post and more!
Liz Hannah burst onto the scene a couple of years ago when her first screenplay, a spec script about Washington Post owner Kay Graham and her decision to publish the Pentagon Papers, was picked up none other than Steven Spielberg. That became The Post starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. Liz Hannah went on the write the critically acclaimed comedy Long Shot starring Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen.
Now she is onboard Mindhunter season two as a writer and producer. Liz Hannah talks to us about her career, working with David Fincher (exec producer and director on Mindhunter), writing and staging one of the most intense episodes of TV this year, the Charles Manson episode, getting into the heads of serial killers and much more.
Jason Hill fue miembro de los relativamente efímeros Louis XIV, ahora volvemos a tenerle por aquí en una faceta bien distinta. Suya es la banda sonora original de la serie televisiva de Netflix “Mindhunter“. Aprovechamos el estreno de su segunda temporada para charlar con él.
Es la década de 1970 y los coches, brillantes y alargados, recorren las ciudades de Estados Unidos bajo la macilenta luz de las farolas. Jimmy Carter es presidente, J. Edgar Hoover lleva muerto varios años y la guerra fría sigue en marcha. Salir a la calle ya no parece tan seguro como lo era en la idealizada década de 1950, pero el país vive, entre todas, una particular pesadilla: los asesinatos en serie. El miedo al otro se instala en la sociedad norteamericana. ¿Conseguirá el FBI modernizarse a tiempo de una forma adecuada y eficaz? Sigamos la serie para descubrirlo. Una serie, por cierto, que destaca entre los thrillers televisivos actuales. Y uno de los motivos es por la atractiva banda sonora de Jason Hill, vocalista y guitarrista de Louis XIV, una banda que publicó tres álbumes en cuatro años durante la década pasada.
La banda sonora original de “Mindhunter” parece siempre sutil, delicada. Es como en la introducción de la serie, con la pieza de los créditos, en la que la subversión se esconde detrás de esa música y la perfección y cuidado de los agentes manejando la grabadora. Eso debe haber sido difícil de lograr. ¿Cómo fue el proceso creativo?
Era cuestión de encontrarle la voz, de encontrarle color al movimiento. Fue como un enigma. Yo desde el principio comencé a sentirlo como una bruma, una especie de niebla o agua. Era líquido, resbaladizo… pero también era como esa característica ilusoria de los pensamientos, que también es algo de lo que se trata en la serie, especialmente en la primera temporada: las cosas que ocurren y tienen lugar en las mentes de las personas y luego el camino y la acción que toman. Los pensamientos son muy extraños, no puedes tocarlos. Eso sucede muchas veces con la música también. Quería que la música fuera así, cuando no puedes tocarla exactamente, resbalándose entre los dedos.
Entonces, la banda sonora tiene una fuerte carga psicológica.
¡Sí! Por suerte, llevo trabajando con Fincher alrededor de cinco o seis años, y mucho de ese tiempo ha servido para identificar el sonido y la estética de las cosas y los temas [en particular]. Desde entonces ha sido fantástico; más o menos siempre lo encontramos juntos. Con “Mindhunter” he empezado a trabajar desde una fecha bastante temprana, incluso ocho meses antes de ver siquiera una sola imagen. De hecho, empecé desde el momento en que me dijo: ‘¿te apetecería hacer esto?’. Me mandó el guión y lo leí… ¡pero fue difícil! Me considero una persona muy relacionada con todo lo visual y sonoro, pero no es como que al leer el guión se me haya ocurrido la música. Nada de eso. Gran parte del proceso, por tanto, fue para encontrar algo que yo sintiese que era correcto. Cuando vi una imagen, entonces sí, todo adquirió sentido. La “sensación” o esencia que debía transmitir la serie surgió de mí al momento.
Parece que funcionó, porque la música encaja a la perfección con la serie. Había dado por hecho que habías comenzado a partir de las imágenes.
Oh no, no. Hay una canción titulada “The Crime Of The Century” que fue la primera que compuse a partir de una imagen. Fue como: ‘whoah, vale, este es el sonido de la serie (aunque por entonces ya había trabajado largo tiempo en ello). Esa fue la parte en la que sentí que había encontrado lo que buscaba, algo de un aspecto y movimiento acuoso, espeso. Se asemeja a cuando lanzas una piedra en un lago y ésta va formando pequeños círculos o anillos. Así sentía yo esa pieza en relación con la música y con el resto de canciones que estaban por venir. A veces me sentaba al piano y, aunque es difícil de explicar, sentía que la forma en la que estaba tocando era la que se suponía que debía de ser. Es decir, que ese ritmo era el que debía haber en la serie. Extrañamente, a pesar de que desde pequeño siempre creaba canciones, yo nunca entré en el mundo de la música para ser compositor.
From the infamous tales of his multi-take shooting style to the sheer technical precision consistently on display in his work, it is apparent that Fincher is methodical in his craft, a director who knows what he wants and sees very little point in doing the job if he is ever willing to settle for less than that.
Which is why, in a truly unique way, the opening intro to Fincher’s latest Netflix series, Mindhunter, is essentially a distillation of his entire filmmaking career into a single minute-and-a-half of unnervingly brilliant and precise cinematic craft.
Fincher’s first credit as a filmmaker may have technically been Alien 3, but his career didn’t really begin properly until 1995, with the release of Seven. The tale of a pair of detectives investigating the grisly murders of a serial killer, Seven is in many ways, in hindsight, the perfect introductory statement for Fincher’s body of work as a whole. On the surface, it’s a tightly-woven and meanly constructed narrative about a serial killer and the men trying to catch him. But just beneath the surface (and for our purposes, much more importantly) Fincher is using the narrative as a framework through which to explore themes such as the perverseness of mankind, the lasting wounds of grieving, and obsession.
That last one is important: obsession. Because it’s one he’s come back to again and again, and explored in increasingly interesting ways. Fight Club saw him creating a pop-cultural satire, one that delved deep into the depravity of its time and how the obsessions of a generation essentially derailed the concept of mental stability. Zodiac saw him confronting it in his most direct way yet, showing how Robert Graysmith’s and the nation-at-large’s obsession with the Zodiac murders came to engulf them.
What’s so intriguing about Mindhunter is that it tackles this thematic staple of Fincher’s work in a very similar way, yet it does so without even necessitating a single minute of footage from the series proper.